Despite record popularity and success in elections (which are largely free of manipulation) a growing number of Russians in and out of the government are warning that this move back to dictatorship is accompanied by corruption and abuse of power that kept Russia economically weak under the czars and communists and eventually proved unstable. The current government doesn’t much care.
The government admits that the economy is in trouble and that only some of these problems are caused by the 2014 sanctions and the three years of low oil prices. But the Russian economy is adjusting, every Russian can see that. While there is no economic collapse the standard of living for most Russians is declining. This comes after more than a decade of spectacular economic growth and unprecedented improvements in the standard of living for most people. For many the current economic and political problems are not unexpected. Russians know their history and most are tolerating the revived police state tactics. This sort of thing has long since become unacceptable in the West but is still seen as “tolerable” in many nations, especially Russia and China. Change can come, but it takes time and rushing it is considered too risky by most Russians. The democrats and reformers in Russia remember what happened to their counterparts between 1918 (when World War I ended) and 1939 (when World War II began). Stalin and his cronies killed as many as they could find, plus lots of innocent bystanders. The Stalin approach was denounced (in secret) by the post-Stalin communist leaders but Stalin and his methods are still admired by many Russians.
The Syrian army offensive to retake Aleppo began on September 23rd is succeeding mainly because of Russian air support, Iranian mercenaries on the ground and divisions among the rebels. Russian political and diplomatic efforts have also prevented any foreign intervention. The UN and the West call Russian and Syrian use of airpower a war crime and threaten prosecutions for the attacks on civilian targets. These threats are ignored and Russia accuses its critics of supporting Islamic terrorism. Russia is confident they (with the help of China) can block UN efforts to interfere in Syria. Russia is willing to consider offers to lift the economic sanctions against them, but so far no one is willing to back that approach. Russia believes any American or NATO threats to use force in Syria are just that, threats not backed up by any willingness to act.
Because of all this the Assad government is clearly defeating the 2011 rebellion. This is happening with the help of Russia, Iran and a temporary anti-ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) coalition that includes NATO, Turks, Arab Gulf states and Kurdish separatists. ISIL is likely to disappear as a major factor by early 2017 as the two major ISIL held cities (Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in eastern Syria) are about to be attacked and cleared of ISIL control. That will remove a major (over a third) of the rebel combat capability in Syria. Turkish troops entered Syria in late August to clear the ISIL and Kurdish groups from northern Syria. All this has weakened the rebels sufficiently to enable to Syrian army to advance against Aleppo and against rebels operating outside the capital (Damascus). Turkey has offered to get involved in the offensive against Raqqa. Government forces are also on their way to regaining control of the southern and Iraqi borders by early 2017.
In Aleppo Russian and Syrian aircraft and artillery continue to bombard rebel held neighborhoods. The Assads offered to allow the 250,000 civilians trapped in four rebel held neighborhoods to safely get out of the city if they agreed to leave the country or move to government controlled territory and stop supporting the rebels. So far the rebels have not agreed, in part because many want to fight on no matter what and mainly because rebels don’t trust Russia or the Assads. Treating enemy civilians this way has long been common practice in this part of the world and the Assads continue to employ methods that are now generally considered war crimes. Since 2011 nearly two-thirds of the dead have been civilians largely because of a deliberate Assad policy of attacking pro-rebel civilians to force them out of the country (or at least the combat zone). This has worked because now over half of all Syrians have been forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting, especially the government air and artillery attacks on civilians. Thus the Assads have been responsible for nearly 80 percent of the civilian deaths since 2011. The Russians still use the same tactics and since the Russian forces arrived in mid-2015 the air attacks on rebel civilians have increased. This includes attacks on hospitals and aid facilities (including some run by the UN illegal to attack). Russia says these targets were actually being used by rebels, which in some cases is true. Technically if armed men are in any of these “neutral facilities” they lose their legal immunity from air or artillery attack.
Russia has refused to back off from using what the West considers barbaric and inhumane tactics. As a result the United States has suspended negotiations with Russia. These talks had been going on since late 2015 to achieve some agreement on how NATO and Russian air forces would avoid accidents over Syria and how to end the war. That has not worked as Russia is determined to see the Assad government regain control of the country no matter what. That goal is shared by Iran. Russia does not deny its air strikes since September 2015 have killed a lot of people (estimates go as high as 9,000) and that many of the victims might have been civilians. The Russians point out that their approach defeats the rebels while the more acceptable (to the rest of the world) methods merely prolong the fighting and enable Islamic terrorists, especially ISIL, to expand. Russia has said any American effort to interfere with Russian military operations in Syria would be opposed forcefully. Russia has admitted that this might escalate to nuclear war and that they are ready for that.
Russia has regularly violated the September 2014 ceasefire on the ground while vigorously enforcing it in the air by sending in several anti-aircraft missile systems to turn the airspace over rebel held areas of Donbas a no-fly zone. The ceasefire banned Ukrainian aircraft from operating over rebel territory. Before the ceasefire the Ukrainian military had lost seven fighters and ground attack aircraft, nine helicopters and three transports to Russian supplied anti-aircraft weapons used by the rebels. These weapons downed a Malaysian airliner (flight MH17). Russia is maintaining its military positions in eastern Ukraine but the Ukrainians believe that Russia will go on the offensive again once they can declare victory in Syria. The Russian backed rebels continue to fire on Ukrainian troops almost daily and the fighting has so far (since early 2014) left nearly 10,000 (mostly Ukrainians) dead.
Bring Forward The Nukes
Russia is reviving the threat of nuclear war to intimidate its critics in the West. This is nothing new. In 2009 the U.S. dropped plans to install anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic in part because of the Russian opposition. The Russians feared that the anti-missile system would interfere with Russian ballistic missiles aimed at Europe. This decision demoralized East European nations, who had been looking to the U.S. for help in keeping the Russians away. In response to the 2009 American decision Russia said it would not station five brigades (60 launchers, each with two missiles) of Iskander ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad. Iskander (also known as SS-26 and 9M723K1) has a 500 kilometer range and was designed to destroy anti-missile missiles. It is not a traditional ballistic missile. That is, it does not fire straight up, leave the atmosphere, then come back down, following a ballistic trajectory. Instead, Iskander stays in the atmosphere and follows a rather flat trajectory. It is capable of evasive maneuvers and deploying decoys. This makes it more difficult for anti-missile systems to take it down.
Iskander began development near the end of the Cold War. The first successful launch took place in 1996. The 4.6 ton Iskander M has a solid fuel rocket motor and a range of up to 700 kilometers normally carries a 710 kg (1,500 pound) warhead. The missile can be stored for up to ten years. Russia offered several different types of warheads, mainly for, including cluster munitions, thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) and electro-magnetic pulse (anti-radar, and destructive to electronics in general.) There is also a nuclear warhead, which is not exported. Guidance is very accurate, using GPS, plus infrared homing for terminal guidance. The warhead will land within 10 meters (31 feet) of the aim point. Iskanders are carried in a 40 ton 8x8 truck, which also provides a launch platform. There is an optional reload truck that carries two missiles. Russia ended up only producing the Iskander-M for its own military because no one wanted the export mode. The M version has a longer range (at least 500 kilometers) and more countermeasures (to interception). Russia has admitted that it could use Iskander to destroy the U.S. anti-missile systems in a pre-emptive attack. Just in case Russia wanted to start World War 3 for some reason or another. Entering service in 2005, Russia found there were no export customers for the innovative and expensive Iskander. A few were used against Georgia in 2008 but that did not impress anyone. The 2009 threats to send Iskander to Kaliningrad turned out to be a publicity stunt but the current moves are a done deal as some Iskander missiles and launch vehicles have arrived at bases near the Polish border.
Russian city of Kaliningrad itself is not a publicity stunt, especially for its neighbors. Kaliningrad and the area around it used to be part of the ancient German province of East Prussia, which disappeared after World War II. Most of East Prussiai went to Poland, but Russia retained the city of Konigsberg and its environs (15,100 square kilometers, about the size of Northern Ireland.) Konigsberg became Kaliningrad and was turned into a major naval base. After 1991 Kaliningrad continued as the headquarters of the Russian Baltic fleet and was guarded by a large force of troops and warplanes. In 2012 Russia activated a new early warning radar in Kaliningrad. Most Russians see bolstering the defenses of Kaliningrad as quite reasonable. You never know when those Western Europeans will invade again. The population of Kaliningrad is 400,000, nearly all of them Russians as the Germans were expelled at the end of World War II. When the Soviet Union fell apart Russia kept Kaliningrad, in part because Kaliningrad is a special place, a reminder of the great (and costly) World War II victory over ancient foe Germany and decades of Russian domination of East Europe that followed. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 Kaliningrad found itself nestled between newly independent (and very anti-Russian) Poland and Lithuania and an ideal place to station a new missile like Iskander.
October 9, 2016: Ukraine says it has caught another Russian spy, the second in the last week. Both were Ukrainians arrested after turning over a USB memory stick full of military documents and receiving cash for it. Russia denies stuff like this even though Ukraine has also captured Russian intelligence personnel who admitted who they were.
October 8, 2016: In the south (Chechnya) police killed eight wanted Islamic terrorists when the two cars carrying the men refused to stop at a checkpoint and the occupants opened fired. The police were ready for such a situation and fired back. Soon all eight Islamic terrorists were dead and four policemen were wounded. The police had a warning that this group of Islamic terrorists were planning a major attack in the area and 200 additional police and police commandos were sent to reinforce checkpoints and other routes the attackers might use to reach their target.
October 7, 2016: The United States officially accused Russia of being responsible for Internet based attacks that have resulted in many emails by government officials and other official documents being made public. This form of espionage is no secret nor is the fact that most of it thrives in places like Russia and China. But officially accusing Russia of what can be considered “an act of war” is unusual. The Russian response was the same; denying any involvement. Russia and China are pretty confident, based on past experience, that the American government won’t actually do anything about it.
The Russian parliament approved the permanent presence of the Russian air force contingent in Syria. Russia currently has over fifty fighters, bombers, helicopters, transports and electronic warfare aircraft in Syria plus an S-400 anti-aircraft/anti-missile missile battery. Recent additions include several more Su-24 and Su-34 light bombers as well as an S-300 anti-aircraft missile battery. With the new Russian law the Hmeimim airbase those Russian aircraft operate from in Syria, near the port city of Latakia (85 kilometers north of Tartus) has become a long-term foreign base for Russia. Before 2011 Russia was building a small, but technically permanent naval support facility in Tartus. By 2012 the several hundred Russians who there working on the project were largely gone from Syria and the Tartus project suspended until the war was over. That changed in mid-2015 when Russia intervened with several thousand air force, special operations and support troops.
In the south (Ingushetia) there two clashes with Islamic terrorists that left of them five dead, one a known member of ISIL. There were no other casualties.
October 3, 2016: Russia withdrew from a 2000 nuclear arms reduction agreement treaty, partly in protest against American opposition to Russian military operations in Syria and Ukraine and partly because the 2000 treaty called for Russia to pay for disposing of its own plutonium and that has turned out to be more expensive than Russia could afford. Some aspects of the treaty were tolerable. In 2010 Russia closed down the last plutonium producing nuclear reactor on the planet. According to the treaty, the U.S. was to reduce its nuclear warhead arsenal to the same level as Russians (about 1,600). Both countries agreed to begin destroying 34 tons of plutonium each by 2018. That 68 tons of plutonium could build 17,000 nuclear weapons. There were growing disagreements over how to destroy (or demilitarize) the plutonium.
In Syria rebels outside the capital (Damascus) again fired some mortar shells towards the Russian embassy. The shells did not hurt anyone in the embassy. This has happened several times since 2011. The Syrian government is believed to be responsible for some of these attacks, at least the ones that took place when there were no rebels reported close enough to have done so.
September 29, 2016: An official investigation by the Dutch government into the destruction of Malaysian B-777 airliner (flight MH17) over eastern Ukraine in 2014 concluded that the missile used was owned by Russia, not Ukraine. The UN has been unable, because of Russian opposition, to conduct such an inquiry but that has not stopped similar investigations by nations whose citizens were passengers on the aircraft. In July 2015 eleven of the fifteen members of the UN Security Council voted to establish a tribunal to investigate who was responsible for the shooting down of a Malaysian B-777 airliner (flight MH17) over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Russia used its veto to block the resolution. Russia and Russian backed Ukrainian rebels were always the main suspects in the destruction of MH17 and the deaths of all 298 aboard. Russia blames the loss of MH17 on the Ukrainians but offered no convincing proof. The Russian manufacturer of the missile believed responsible admitted that it was their missile. At a press conference a company rep showed how the pattern of fragments found in the aircraft hull could only have been made by one version (now out of production) of the missile used by their BUK M1 system. Less convincing was the company theory that the missile was not fired from territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels. The aircraft was shot down as it passed over territory controlled by pro-Russian separatist rebels in Donbas. The airliner was at an altitude of 10,000 meters and the rebels were known to have some captured anti-aircraft systems (BUK M1s) that can hit targets as high as 14,000 meters. For three days the rebels allowed only limited access to the site for international airline accident investigators. Russia will never admit that the missile was fired with their assistance by rebels under their orders.
September 28, 2016: Off the Pacific coast there were two more test launches of the new Russian SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) design, the Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30). One missile worked while the other failed and exploded. This is not encouraging. Bulava was almost cancelled several time because test flights kept failing. But the government believes there is no better option than to keep trying to make Bulava work. The investigation into earlier test failures concluded that the Bulava design was sound but that there continued to be problems with manufacturing components and that current quality control measures were not catching the flaws. This was ultimately tied to continued corruption in state controlled defense industries. The new Borei class SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs, or "boomers") cannot really enter service until they have a reliable SLBM and that can only be the Bulava. So far 38 percent of the test launches have failed. The two recent tests were the first since 2013 because time was needed to fix the management and manufacturing problems that were known to be the main cause of the Bulava problems.
September 26, 2016: In the south (Stavropol) another Moslem cleric was murdered by Islamic terrorists for opposing Islamic terrorism. This is the seventh such murder in Stavropol since 2012. Stavropol is adjacent to the Caucasus and often the scene of Islamic terrorist activity as it is the first part of Russia you enter when leaving the Caucasus.
September 23, 2016:
Russia and the Assads announced they had begun a major offensive to regain control of Aleppo. In the 24 hours before the announcement there were at least 150 airstrikes in and around Aleppo. The main objective of the ground attack is the eastern districts of the city still controlled by the rebels, but also still sheltering at least 250,000 civilians. The air attacks caused over 500 casualties, mostly of them civilians. Russia and Iran backed the Syrian government refusal to even consider another ceasefire. These attacks continue as does the advance of Assad ground forces.
September 20, 2016:
The UN suspended the use of aid convoys in Syria after Russian and Syrian warplanes attacked an aid convoy outside Aleppo, leaving 21 truck drivers and UN aid workers dead. The convoy was hit with about 25 bombs when its 31 trucks had stopped in the town of Uram al Kubra so some of the aid could be unloaded. Russia said Western aircraft were responsible even though there was clear evidence that Russian made warplanes were involved and no coalition aircraft were in the area. The same airstrike that destroyed or damaged at least 20 of the aid trucks also hit a nearby Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid warehouse. There were at least 40 airstrikes within two hours in and around Aleppo and at least one of them hit the convoy and warehouse. It was clear that most of the attacks were carried out by Russian aircraft and bomb fragments were all of Russian made bombs or locally made barrel bombs used by the Syrian air force. Russia later insisted that the destroyed and damaged trucks had somehow caught fire and that the Americans and Syrian rebels were trying to blame the Russians.
September 18, 2016: The nationwide parliamentary elections were, as expected (according to opinion surveys) won by Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia Party with over 340 seats (out of 450). This is a big change from 2011 when the United Russia Party lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. In fact, United Russia only got 49.32 percent, and that was only because of massive corruption (tampering with votes). This produced a widespread outcry for an end to such corruption. Still, United Russia remained in control of Parliament (and the government) with 238 of the 450 seats. It is believed the 2016 elections were rigged to give United Russia a large enough majority to smother any opposition. The current elections had the lowest turnout since democracy was revived in the early 1990s. Most Russians are resigned to the new police state dictatorship the United Russia Party is creating.
September 17, 2015:
In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) the U.S. led air coalition launched a series of airstrikes on ISIL positions. But in less than an hour the U.S. was notified by the Russians that some of the airstrikes were hitting Syrian troops and had should be stopped. The U.S. had notified the Russians earlier in the day that the airstrikes would take place and Russia did not, as the two countries had previously agreed, say there were any Russian or Syrian government troops in the area. Russia later accused the Americans of deliberately hitting Syrian forces but the U.S. pointed out that they had watched the target areas (with UAVs and satellites) for two days previously to ensure the precise location and identity of ISIL personnel to be attacked. This is standard for the Americans, whose ROE (Rules of Engagement) call for maximum effort to minimize civilian casualties. Syria later claimed that the American airstrikes had killed 62 troops and wounded over 100. Syrian forces were largely absent from Deir Ezzor province until March 2016 when Syrian troops retook Palmyra, which ISIL grabbed in May 2015. Palmyra was a major ISIL victory but since the beginning of 2016 Russian air and ground forces have worked with Syrian troops to methodically fight their way back to Palmyra and surrounding Deir Ezzor province. ISIL had, at the end of 2015, controlled most of Deir Ezzor province, including Palmyra, which is astride the main road from Deir Ezzor to Damascus (the national capital and Assad stronghold). Supporting government forces in Deir Ezzor became more difficult with the loss of Palmyra in mid-2015. Syrian troops have been fighting ISIL in Deir Ezzor province ever since in preparation for an on the ISIL capital of Raqqa (227 kilometers to the northeast).
September 15, 2016: Russia announced that it would back additional sanctions on North Korea if that would end the North Korean nuclear program. The next day there was a large brawl between North Korean and Russian workers at a shipyard in Vladivostok (the largest Russian city on the Pacific coast). Someone took a video of the incident and posted it on the Internet. Since 2014 Russia has been growing problems with the nearly 50,000 North Koreans working in Russia. This is mostly in parts of Russia near the North Korean border, where there is a shortage of Russians for jobs in factories, construction and lumbering operations. Apparently some of the employers are not treating their North Korean workers well and a growing number of the North Koreans are running away, despite the fact that this means family members back in North Korea will be punished. The legal North Korea migrants are part of what amounts to a slave labor program that has become a major (up to $2 billion a year) source of foreign exchange for North Korea. The export of North Korean workers has gone from 60,000 men and women in 2014 to over 100,000 in 2015. The number of workers outside the country is nearly triple what it was before since Kim Jong Un took over in 2011. The government takes up to 90 percent of the wages these men and women earn outside the country (mainly in Russia and China) and holds the workers’ families hostage in case the worker does not return home when ordered. If someone does not come back, their families are sent to prison camps.
September 14, 2016: In the last week there was a very visible change in the leadership of the government anti-corruption operation. This is run by the interior ministry and in quick succession Russians found out that the head of anti-corruption operations resigned shortly after one his deputies (Dmitry Zakharchenko) was arrested on the 8th because he was the “owner” of over $120 million in U.S. currently (and several million dollars’ worth of Euros) found hidden in the home of a family member. Zakharchenko was a retired spetsnaz (commando) colonel. Since the late 1990s more and more secret police and army (especially special operations) officers have been hired for key government jobs. The Russian slang for these new officials is “strongmen” (siloviki). President Putin (a former KGB officer) was one of the first and since the late 1990s many have followed. The recent public scandal is believed to represent a government effort to deal with restoring “honor among thieves (siloviki)”. Some of the siloviki have been freelancing and that is seen as disloyalty and possibly rebellion. Russia has always been politically chaotic but as long as there was a certain order to the chaos all was well with those in charge it was tolerated by most Russians. Officially Russia has been trying to eliminate the corruption that underlies this ancient system (perfected by the czars and taken over and renamed by the Russian communists after 1917). In practice the corruption is more attractive to those of the siloviki persuation.
Since 2014 the siloviki created crises in Ukraine provided the government an opportunity to back off on its anti-corruption campaign promises. This anti-corruption effort was popular with most Russians, but not the wealthiest ones and the government officials being bribed. With the public distracted by the situation in Ukraine and the government’s increasingly strident attacks on “NATO aggression” it was deemed prudent to do something for the wealthy and some key members of the government by dropping some investigations and prosecutions. The siloviki handled this and expected to get paid but apparently some of the siloviki began to cheat their fellow thieves.
Meanwhile the corruption has made it more difficult for Russia to do business with foreign countries and because of that it was clear that anti-corruption efforts have only been partially successful. This became obvious as several Western banks were investigated and prosecuted (outside Russia) for taking (or discussing taking) Russian bribes to help Russia get around economic sanctions. Inside Russia the corruption appears to be getting worse and the details exposed by foreign investigations are becoming a major problem. Siloviki efforts to deal with these costly revelations also revealed that some untrustworthy siloviki were part of the problem.
Russian critics, foreigners and Russians living outside Russia were often using freely available data in the West to document the huge wealth Russian officials had illegally obtained and, with the help of the siloviki, moved out of the country. This is often in the form of foreign real estate and other expensive items that can be identified and linked to a specific price. But a lot of wealth was in the form of foreign currency legally imported into Russia, stolen by corrupt managers and government officials and then moved out of the country. All of that requires the help of key siloviki officials.
In 2014 new laws came into force making it more difficult for Russian individuals and businesses to move large sums of money out of the country. This has always been a problem, first as corrupt politicians and businessmen moved dirty (illegally obtained) money out of the country for safekeeping. Now you also have a lot of money moved out because corruption (and now sanctions) made investing overseas more attractive than doing so inside Russia. This is what is causing over $100 billion a year moved out of the country illegally since 2014. Russian officials are supposed to declare their income and assets, as an anti-corruption measure, but these growing revelations make all those declarations appear to be another government scam.
September 12, 2016: The United States announced that it had proof that its August 30th airstrike had killed ISIL second-in-command and official spokesman Abu Mohammad al Adnani. The U.S. would not say what the proof was but it may quietly provide details to Russia. ISIL admitted that Adnani was dead and vowed revenge, but did not say against who. That’s because Russia and the United States warplanes both carried out air strikes in the area (near Aleppo) where Adnani was killed and initially both claimed that it was their airstrike was responsible. The U.S. did reveal that one of its UAVs was tracking Adnani and used missiles to kill him. The United States does not like to disclose details of how its intelligence collecting and analysis systems work, and neither do the Russians. So this dispute may linger for a while unless the Russians and Americans agree. The good news is that Adnani is definitely dead and someone may have quietly collected the $5 million reward the U.S. offered in 2015. The U.S. definitely does not want to discuss those informants as keeping their identities secret is the key to the success of the program.